Ambition

FFF 14:1 (Jan 1968)

Ambition

E. W. Rogers

It is a good thing for everyone to have an ambition. The base is crowded: the top is sparsely populated. To be contented with things as they are and not to be desirous of improvement betrays an apathy unworthy of any. Of course there are obstacles to be overcome; difficulties to be met and mastered if the object in view is to be attained, but that only makes for the building up of character. This is specially so when the ambition is of a spiritual kind for then spiritual character is developed.

Ambition may be of two kinds, that for one’s own personal advancement or that for the attainment of an object with the view of benefitting others. Both have their proper place, though if we follow our Lord we shall ever be willing to give the benefit of others the first place. As a matter of fact the use of the word in the New Testament never has the thought of personal self-advancement. It always has an external object and its good as we shall see.

Unhappily at the present time, and it has ever been so, ambition is earthbound for the most part and the object of desire has been material advancement or earthly achievement. Very few seem to have a healthy spiritual Christ-like ambition.

Paul uses the word in its verbal form three times and, as might be expected, it is not always on a worldly plane. His word is philotimeomai, meaning literally a loving honour. Yet if the ambition is to be of a proper kind, the honour must be that given by the rightful person. Earthly ambition when achieved is crowned with the acknowledgment of one’s worldly superiors. It is not with this that Paul is concerned; the honour that he has in mind is that which is bestowed by God. Yet how many of us are like those to whom the Lord said “How can ye believe which receive honour one of another and seek not the honour that cometh from the only God?” (John 5:44). It is, admittedly, not always possible to be “well pleasing to God and approved of men” (Rom. 14:18), but if choice has to be made God has prior claim. Do we esteem the honour that comes from God more highly than that which men may bestow on us?

Paul uses the word once in relation to the believer’s personal life, once in relation to the world of lost sinners, and once as to the believer’s relationship to the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 4:11

“And that ye study to be quiet and do your own business and to work with your hands even as we charged you that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without and may have need of nothing” (RVm). The word study is the word “be ambitious.” Paul had himself given an example of this very thing when in the midst of the Thessalonians by his own actions as witness (2 Thess. 3:8). He could, therefore, very forcibly enjoin them that “with quietness they work and eat their own bread.” It was discreditable that any should not be working at all but were busybodies. There is a play on the Greek words, they were busybodies, doing no real business. They were interfering with other people’s business. They were sponging on others. It should, however, be a thing to be aimed at that we should show a healthy independence of others, having need of no one and of nothing.

The idleness of some of the Thessalonians at least may have sprung from an abuse of the doctrine which Paul had given touching the coming of the Lord. It is plain that he had taught them that this “coming” might occur at any moment, for its time was altogether unknown to any but the Father; and, therefore, abusing the teaching, they ceased to work while “waiting for God’s Son from Heaven.” They had forgotten the injunction “Occupy till I come.” Some, on the other hand, as would appear from 2 Thessalonians 3:10 may have been idlers independent altogether from what Paul taught. But whatever the cause, Satan always finds something for idle hands to do, and that something is never good: more likely than enough it will be interference into the affairs of others.

We are not much troubled now-adays with this kind of thing, but the great principle behind the exhortation is not without relevance. We should aim at a “walk,” a behaviour, that is honourable not only in the sight of our fellow believers but also in the sight of the world — “them that are without.” We should walk honourably (Rom. 13:13) and quietly. It is not the boisterous who is necessarily usefully active, for sometimes noise and work in our modern mechanised age do go together, but not always. Many are neither seen nor heard yet are very effectively working.

Paul is very practical; he not only can soar into high doctrines and plump depths of divine truth, but also can come down to earth as to daily living. “If anyone does not wish to work neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). Paul did not eat “any man’s bread for nought”; he paid for it. He worked in labour and travail day and night in order not to be a burden to any of them. He forfeited his apostolic and evangelistic right in order to demonstrate in real life how believers ought to be occupied and so render themselves healthily independent of others. It is despicable to sponge on others when the capacity to work is not lacking.

The Ephesians were enjoined: “Let him that stole steal no more but rather let him labour working with his hands the thing which is good that he may have whereof to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). For “it is better to give than to receive” as said the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:35). The daily occupation of the believer should be that which is honourable: he should pursue an “honest occupation” (Titus 3:14 RVm) or “honest trade” (AVm). There are ‘lines’ which are unworthy of the Christian however lucrative they may be, but there are plenty of professions or trades open to the believer which he may worthily follow putting him in the happy position of faithfulness to God and independence of men, as well as providing for those of his own house and having wherewith by which he may help the hapless and the Lord’s work and servants.

Romans 15:20

In this passage Paul uses our word ‘ambitious’ in relation to his evangelistic and apostolic work. He had been specially commissioned by the Lord to go to the Gentiles and at the time of writing to the Romans, whose city he had not yet reached, he was able to report that he had thoroughly executed that charge in so extensive an area as from Jerusalem to Illyricum. A glance at the map will show how vast a territory this is. But Paul was ever desirous of pressing on to ‘regions beyond’ those which he had already reached. His ambition was to go to places where the name of Christ was unknown, where the tidings of the cross had not yet come. His not having been to Rome did not spring from fear of Nero, or shame of the gospel (Romans 1, vv. 9 ff) but was caused by his being hindered many times despite his various attempts.

Now we must not be satisfied with reading this merely as a part of Paul’s autobiography. It has lessons for us which we must not fail to learn. The unevangelized heathen are not far from our doors today. True, there are few parts of the earth where the name of Christ has never at some time or other been named, even though heathen religions now hold sway. We must never forget we live late in the day — the eleventh hour — but we live in times when other men’s labours have, in many cases, disappeared due to the suppression of the ruling powers, or the judicial darkening of lands once highly favoured with the gospel, as to wit, North Africa. Often it is necessary in such places to start altogether afresh, laying the foundation because the present generation knows nothing whatever of what formerly had been done.

Look out, then, for such soil. It may be found in sections of the world’s vast cities or in some smaller town or area. The thing is to have the ambition to spread the gospel so that those who do not know it are informed of it, and that will entail your telling the man or woman with whom you next come in contact. Do not suppose that because you live in a so-called Christian country that its inhabitants know the gospel. Most have no idea of it for there are very few who faithfully preach it.

Had anyone challenged Paul why he went to the Gentiles and did not limit himself to the Jew, he would among his detailed answers have been able to cite Isaiah 52:15 (see Romans 15:21) as being his scriptural authority. He read the passage as having a voice to him and it inspired him with the desire to do the very thing named in the verse. Of course he knew its prophetical bearing, but he was then and there concerned with its present message. We should read Scripture in a like manner.

The matter seems to have been questioned in the Corinthian church and Paul himself meets the challenge in 2 Corinthians 10:14-16 not selfishly, restricting to himself the honour of taking the gospel to the “regions beyond” but encouraging the saints to have their part in the matter. Paul did not look for a ready-made audience, or hall, or other things. He went where none of these things were and pioneered the gospel, breaking up fresh ground. Others could follow up what he had done but he made it his ambition first to break new soil. It is not given to everyone now-a-days to do this: it requires young manhood, physical strength, vision, enterprise, courage, ambition. To the few that have such we should give every encouragement.

2 Corinthians 5:9

Here Paul and Timothy state that they “make it their aim whether at home or absent to be well-pleasing to Him.” It is important to read this in the R.V. for the question of our ‘acceptance’ with God is not in view. That is settled (Eph. 1:6.) But not all are well-pleasing to Him. The whole of the context must be read to see the force of this. Paul’s outward man, his physical frame, is perishing but the inward man is being renewed day by day. His pre-occupation is not with things that are seen which are temporal, be they his afflictions or anything else, but with things unseen which are eternal. He has the earnest of the Spirit within giving him assurance as to the reality of unseen things; he has the vision of faith, for his judgment is not formed by external appearance. Indeed, eternal things were so real to him that he would perfer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. However, whilst in the body he made it his aim to be well-pleasing to the Lord, because he knew that there lay ahead of him the Judgment-Seat when everything and everyone would come out in his true light. He would be seen as the man that he actually is and not as the man that he might think himself to be or others might think him to be or to have been.

Every believer has to appear at the Judgement Seat and, therefore every believer should have the ambition to be well-pleasing to the Lord. Each will be discovered then as to what his true character is — the character that he has formed on earth will be revealed then. His physical body has been the instrument of doing things either good or worthless (phaula) and such actions are like boomerangs; they come back and leave their mark on one’s character. They have been as bricks built into the character of our life. We are as it were running an account which will be balanced at the Judgment Seat; the good we have done will be on the credit side; the worthless we have done will be on the debit side of our heavenly register and the net result will be the character with which we will commence Eternity. Turn to Ephesians 6:8 and Colossians 3:25 (RVm): ponder these two passages. We shall receive the good things: we shall receive again the wrong. Things will then come home to roost. Suffering loss will reduce proportionately the gain that we may have accumulated against that day.

In that day all the veneer will be stripped off. Any wax which has been used to conceal the cracks which we know to exist in our lives will then be melted in the sunlight of the presence of the Lord. We shall not then be able to wear a mask, nor would we wish to do so. We shall only be too happy to have everything brought to the surface and in the light of His holy presence to be manifested in its true or worthlessness, and to embark on Eternity free from all those things which may have robbed us of our reward or have militated against our being conformed to the image of God’s Son.

These things, then, should be our ambition: (a) a quiet, godly industrious life; (b) a zeal to spread the knowledge of the name of Christ to as many as we can of those who have not heard of Him; and (c) to live so that we have the consciousness now and the acknowledgment later of our being well-pleasing to the Lord.

Could any ambition be better than this? Such will adjust every other ambition and subordinate them to these three priorities.